Colorado schools would have to post lists of textbooks, worksheets, websites, and surveys administered to students, as well as teacher training materials under a Republican-sponsored bill up for consideration this week.
“On the heels of COVID, you had a lot more awareness from parents seeing curriculum that students were using, what students were learning,” said state Rep. Tim Geitner, an El Paso County Republican, and the bill’s sponsor. “The purpose of the bill is to just add transparency around our most important public institutions.”
It’s one of more than a dozen curriculum transparency measures being considered in statehouses around the country, the latest in an ongoing battle over how race, gender, and history are taught in America’s classrooms.
Christopher Rufo, an activist who engineered the conservative backlash to critical race theory, drafted model legislation on curriculum transparency last year and set a goal of seeing at least 10 states adopt it. “The strategy here is to use a non-threatening, liberal value — ‘transparency’ — to force ideological actors to undergo public scrutiny,” Rufo tweeted in January. “It’s a rhetorically-advantageous position and, when enacted, will give parents a powerful check on bureaucratic power.”
Supporters of the Colorado proposal say it’s not just about controversial topics. Parents might want to know what math curriculum a school uses or if a classroom iPad scans their child’s fingerprint or face, they said. Curriculum transparency could also help parents make more informed choices about which schools are a good fit for their children.
“It’s about making parents partners,” said Tyler Sandberg of the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado.
Opponents say it puts onerous new requirements on already overworked teachers and school administrators, inhibits teachers’ ability to adapt their lesson plans to changing circumstances, and invites conflict rather than conversation about what’s taught in classrooms.
“Almost every teacher in this day and age has a website, has an email, has a phone number,” said Anton Schulzki, a high school social studies teacher in Colorado Springs District 11 and president of the National Council for the Social Studies. “They typically post their syllabus online. Most teachers post examples of their work or rubrics online. This is more about politics than about education or parental rights.”
The curriculum transparency bill, House Bill 1066, is scheduled for a hearing Thursday in the House Education Committee. In a Democratic-controlled legislature, it’s not likely to advance.
That’s in contrast to bipartisan legislation passed last year to require school districts to share information about which reading curriculum they use, part of an ongoing effort to get more Colorado districts to adopt evidence-based approaches to reading instruction.
Colorado’s system of local control means school districts, not legislators, choose teaching materials and curriculum, and school districts are where these debates ultimately will play out.
A Cygnal poll commissioned by Ready Colorado in January found 77% of likely voters, including nearly as many parents and 65% of registered Democrats, supported schools posting teaching materials online. Support was higher among respondents of color and those who earned less money.
Respondents to a Keating Research poll commissioned by Democrats for Education Reform ranked curriculum transparency last in importance among education issues, behind increasing school funding, addressing the teacher shortage, improving mental health support, and preparing students for good-paying jobs, though more than half of respondents still said schools should post teaching materials online.
“In a democratic society we decide what gets taught and what doesn’t,” Sandberg said. “I think there is broad-based support for knowing what kids are being taught.”
John Rogers, an education professor at UCLA who has studied how debates over critical race theory affect local educators, said it’s not surprising that many parents’ immediate reaction would be to support posting of curriculum. Many school districts do a bad job at meaningful community engagement, and parents feel frustrated and alienated after two years of disrupted learning.
“I believe deeply in the importance of parental engagement and parental involvement in public education,” Rogers said. “What we’re seeing now is invoking that, but not for the purposes of creating a shared dialogue between parents and educators but to heighten conflict.
“Conflict becomes an intended outcome of a lot of these efforts.”
Many educators will feel scrutinized and disrespected, and some will shy away from sensitive subjects, Rogers said.
“If you unleash political strife on public schools, it undermines support for public education,” he said. “It makes teachers feel less confident in leaning into difficult issues. They’ll back away from having important conversations that young people need to engage in if we’re going to build a multiracial democracy.”
That’s already happening, said David Graf, an English teacher in Woodland Park, where a new conservative school board is considering a policy to require teachers to disclose when they’re teaching about certain controversial topics and make it easier for parents to remove their children from those lessons.
Graf teaches a course called Civil Disobedience that covers topics ranging from Enlightenment thinkers’ views on the role of law to the Black Lives Matter movement and Dakota Access pipeline protests. While he’s never had a parent complaint in six years — and he says he would never change how he teaches in response to political pressure — he and his colleagues feel more scrutiny from the broader community.
“A lot of secondary teachers in English and social studies, we’re walking a bit more on eggshells in terms of how we present material and what material we present,” he said.
House Bill 1066 calls for school districts and charter schools to post lists at the start of each school year describing textbooks, reading materials, supplemental worksheets, website URLs, and other educational materials, with titles, publishers, and a brief description of the content, for every grade and class. They would have to make materials available upon request and could not bar parents from sharing the materials with others.
They would also have to post nonacademic surveys and assessments, such as the state’s Healthy Kids survey or other surveys about student well-being that many schools administer, along with teacher training materials and any devices, software, or programs that collect biometric data on students.
Geitner said the inclusion of surveys, devices, and software distinguishes his bill from model legislation. Unlike legislation in other states, it doesn’t single out particular topics and doesn’t include any penalties for school districts.
Lastly, the bill would require school districts that adopt a controversial topics policy, which some have had for decades, to post that policy online in a way that’s easy to find and provide a grievance process for parents who feel like their rights have been violated.
Geitner said that even if his bill doesn’t pass, the debate it generates could lead to changes at the district level.
“Several school board members from various districts have reached out and said, ‘Hey, this is a good bill,’ and they might want to adopt something like this,” Geitner said. “Now there are districts that are aware due to 1066.”
Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at firstname.lastname@example.org.